News Mary Kenny

Monday 22 September 2014

The family ties that have been healing the rift with our nearest neighbours

Published 12/04/2014 | 02:30

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President Michael D Higgins in conversation with Queen Elizabeth before the historic state banquet in Windsor Castle.
President Michael D Higgins in conversation with Queen Elizabeth before the historic state banquet in Windsor Castle.

Watching the outpouring of warmth and friendliness – the cheers and tears by crowds at London and Windsor as the President and the queen stood side by side, Irish Tricolours intermingling with the Union flag, national anthems being played at parity – it was startling to recall a very different recent history.

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Startling to remember that when I was a young schoolgirl, and Queen Elizabeth was crowned, Irish people had to creep secretly into Protestant church halls around the country to view that Coronation. Because the film of the Coronation was not allowed to be shown openly in the Republic of Ireland.

Startling to recall that when Princess Margaret, the queen's sister, visited Birr in 1960 – since Lord Rosse was her brother-in-law – the newspapers were full of letters of protest and the local IRA tried to plunge Birr into darkness by sabotaging the electricity.

Startling, indeed, to look on the royal standard which flies whenever the monarch is present, and reflect that Eamon de Valera tried to stop the king (Elizabeth's grandfather, George V) from including the emblem of the harp, claiming that it belonged to the Irish people, and not a British monarch.

(King George managed to desist by saying that it was a medieval "heraldic" symbol, and not in his power to rescind its use.)

Watching the glorious pageantry celebrating British-Irish relations – and when the British do pageantry, they do it big – it was amazing to think that De Valera used to forbid Irish diplomats in London to display any bunting or other signs of celebration during coronations or royal weddings. TDs who were invited to such events in London had to travel discreetly in a private capacity, and some, like the admirable James Dillon, were mocked and derided as "shoneens" for doing so.

All now well in the past, and about time too: in this year of 2014, An Uachtaran has most especially rescued from history the men and women who served both our countries as they volunteered in 1914 for the Great War – underlining the heroic figure of Tom Kettle. And Olivia O'Leary at the Royal Albert Hall gave an engaging example of her two great-aunts, Peggy and Kitty, who had sallied forth and served as nurses in the trenches (as did, for a short time, Maud Gonne MacBride).

So the state visit of Michael D Higgins, and the popular Sabina, was manifestly a great success – so moving to see them cheered to the rafters at the Albert Hall on Thursday night, sitting between Prince and Princess Michael of Kent in the royal box. All involved are to be congratulated for the flawless way it was organised and managed.

Olivia said that the cheers were "for our President", and yes, they were, but most achievements are accomplished slowly, and are built upon the efforts of many people. The colossal improvement in Anglo-Irish relations was built, brick by brick, by civil servants and politicians over the years since the 1990s and gracefully embellished by presidents Mary Robinson and McAleese.

But there was another factor in this sea change in the relationship: and that was among people and families. All through decades, from the end of the Second World War, in 1945, there was an intermingling of peoples. As we know, many Irish people emigrated to England during those years.

Irish emigrants, as many a song and story tell, often had it tough. 'Poor Paddy Works on the Railroad', and on the buildings and the London Underground, and indeed the Channel Tunnel. A priest in Folkestone held many a funeral Mass for an Irishman who had been killed in the construction of that remarkable link between England and France.

The Irish nurses made a huge contribution to the National Health Service – again, underlined by Mr Higgins – and, although they sometimes had hard times, they had fun too.

Yet were Irish emigrants treated badly? Some today still remember a feeling of inferior status, of continuous slights, of a sense of contempt or mockery with the tedious recital of the 'Irish' joke, whose sub-text was that Paddy and Bridget were thick (some were more benignly topsy-turvey: "What do you get when you slice an Irish onion? It makes you laugh.")

For these older Irish people, the Presidential visit was tearfully moving, and a meaningful confirmation that at last they had been accepted with respect and parity in the host society.

However, hand on heart, I cannot say that I ever felt unfairly treated in Britain itself – I arrived with the generation of the 1960s. Yes, there were joshings and teasings and even last month, when 'The Spectator' reviewed a book of mine, they headlined it as the memoir of 'A Wild Irish Girl'. As it is accurate enough as a description of myself when young, I can hardly object.

Later, in the 1970s, when the bombings in Britain began, you could sense resentment: but my recollection of that period is that we, ourselves, were for the most part appalled and mortified that innocent people sitting in a pub at the end of a day's work should be blown to smithereens. Most of us felt: "Not in my name".

And then, something else was also happening beneath the surface. People and families were meeting and intermingling. Irish emigrants gave birth to British-born children, and at my sons' Catholic comprehensive school in West London, Cardinal Vaughan (which was four times over-subscribed because its academic standard was so highly rated), about 70 per cent of pupils had Irish connections – identifying themselves as second or third generation Irish.

These families still felt the pull of Ireland, kept in touch with their Irish kinfolk regularly, visited Ireland, and generally formed part of the 'diaspora' we now recognise.

Such generations feel a perfectly natural allegiance to Britain, but an equally natural allegiance to Ireland: and this is the sea-change that has been in process, beneath the surface, over all the years of political evolution and progress.

The politicians, presidents and diplomats achieved much: but they were often impelled by the demographic changes and above all, the links of families and kinship. It has been calculated that a quarter of Englishmen have an Irish mother or grandmother: so the most common reaction to Irishness now is – "yes, my grandma comes from Mayo – we always went there in the summer holidays" – and the affectionate memories then emerge.

It can be unwise to over-emphasise any trend, national or personal, since events can always intervene and throw up old resentments. The partition of Ireland is still, in my view, to be regretted: the price of healing that division might be for Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth, though some would baulk at that. And there is the unfinished business of Omagh, and other unsolved atrocities, which we must all deal with, justly, fairly and openly.

Outside Windsor Castle, the lonely figures of those bereaved at Birmingham in 1974, maintained a vigil, asking for justice. This, we must hope, will occur. Miracles have happened. After all, we sang, hardly missing an intervening beat, 'Amhran na bhFiann' and 'God Save the Queen' in unison.

Irish Independent

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